Heather Sperling: Why did you start cooking? What inspired you to pursue it professionally?
Tim Dahl: It’s the only thing I’ve ever done; I’ve been doing it since I was 15. A lot of people on my mom’s side are cooks and chefs. I started in restaurants at 15 years old, worked savory all the way through college, and during that time took on a job at a bakery because I had never made bread and wanted to learn. That ended up being my first pastry chef job.
HS: Where have you worked professionally?
TD: After college I worked in Chicago, and then went to Kendall College for culinary school. I worked all over Minneapolis and in North Carolina then ended back in Madison, Wisconsin. Then I came to Chicago and started working at Nomi as pastry sous chef. I was there for a year and then went to Naha as the pastry chef. I’d wanted to work at Blackbird since I came to Chicago – that was my next move.
HS: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
TD: The way I cook and the style of the stuff I do is strongly influenced by Paul Kahan. When I first cooked for him he sat me down and said “it’s delicious and fantastic, but it’s not what we do.” He taught me to tighten the screws and make everything cleaner. He’s very minimalist and wants everything very tight and clean.
HS: Have you done any stages since you’ve been working?
TD: No, but I’d like to do more. I’d like to go to New York for a week and bounce around. It’s definitely something I want to see.
HS: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen?
TD: I ask them to talk about what they like to cook or if there something that they won’t eat. I think that shows a lot about a person and what kind of [flavor] combinations they like.
HS: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
TD: I’d say get a good foundation of techniques, whether it’s from school or reading or staging. A lot of kids want to play with methylcellulose before they know how to make a sponge cake. Have a good level of humility. Keep your head down, work a million hours, and do what you’re told. Wait to get noticed for your work and then you’ll bounce up the ladder pretty quickly.
HS: What ingredient that you like do you feel is underappreciated or underutilized?
TD: We’re in that moment right now where apples and pears are going to crap and it’s not spring yet. We’re doing a lot with olives right now because they’re really versatile. You can dehydrate or candy them, and a lot more. We did a financier with black olives recently, and they really took on a huckleberry flavor.
HS: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
TD: Olives and white chocolate, chestnuts and white truffles, or grapefruit and juniper. Also maple, bourbon, milk chocolate and smoked salt.
HS: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool?
TD: Either my scale or my TI-86 calculator. Thermometers are important too, but without the scale or calculator, it would be really hard to do my job consistently.
HS: Is there a culinary technique that you employ in an unusual or different way?
TD: We do a lot of reading, research and talking. We try to infuse techniques into what we’re doing. A lot of our stuff is very French and very basic. Though I did recently make brioche ice cream: I made cinnamon toast, took the crusts off, and steeped crusts in the milk used for the base.
HS: Do you have any favorite cookbooks?
TD: Frederic Bau’s books. We mostly use Valhrona chocolate, so these are really useful.
HS: If you could go anywhere in the world for culinary travel, where would you go?
TD: I’d go back to Italy. My wife and I went there for our honeymoon and worked our way around Emilia Romagna, which was amazing. We had gelato every day, and the stuff in Rome was untouchable. I’ve never had better ice cream than that.
HS: What are your favorite restaurants off the beaten path in Chicago?
TD: Kuma’s Corner is a heavy metal bar with the best burgers and a great Belgian beer selection. Pasticceria Natalina is also a really good Italian bakery on Clark.
HS: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
TD: I cook with strong French foundations but at the same time trying to stay very seasonal and local. I’m guided by the seasons; we’re very tight with the local farmers and that is what shapes our menu. If we get a perfect peach, I’d like to build the dessert around that peach. So respect for the ingredient means keeping to the nature of the ingredient. I make it interesting by manipulating it on some level, but always keep true to the natural flavors.
HS: Who would you most like to cook for? To cook for you?
TD: I’d like to cook for my grandma again if she were still alive. I would love for my wife [Pastry Chef Elizabeth Dahl of Boka] to cook for me – I don’t get to have other people cook for me very often.
HS: What are your tips for pastry success?
1. Get a good foundation in the basics.
2. Stay focused on whatever ingredient you’re using
3. Be consistent
HS: If you weren’t a pastry chef what would you be doing?
TD: I’d be a brewmaster. I just started making beer with a kit I got for Christmas. We’re going to start making beer here; I’ve made a few batches and it’s not that difficult.
HS: What’s next for you?
TD: I’m really happy working with everyone here. Maybe somewhere down the line I’d like to do something with my wife, but I like having separate restaurants right now. Five years ago I wouldn’t have imagined that I would have been here!